January 1996, Argentina.

Juan is a Toba indian from Rosario, Argentina. He lives in a shanty town along with other Tobas who have migrated to the city looking for work and a better life, only to find extreme poverty. His small house is made of found pieces of wood, plastic and metal. Around him trash, drugs, and crime are rampant, but food is scarce. For him, it is about surviving in a world where indigenous people's lives and their precious cultures simply do not matter.

For all the Toba indigenous children, their local public school, Escuela Toba 1344, is a haven. There, in a dilapidated, crumbling building, for a few hours each day, they can be children again. They show up at the entrance of the school long before it opens, anxious to enter and leave misery at the doorstep. Inside they find love and acceptance from the dedicated teachers, safety from the harsh outside world, and food to fill their empty stomachs.

I was 21 years old, and on break from art school when I went to Rosario to help out in this school and do a photo documentary. The goal was to do a photo exhibition of the images in France and Switzerland upon my return, and raise money for the Toba school.

I shot the photo of Juan when we took some of the kids on a weekend trip to the countryside. Most of them had never left their small community or been in nature. They were given beds in a big farm house. They had as much food as they wanted, and got to run around the fields, playing, and laughing.

I remember one teacher came up to me, tears in her eyes. I asked her : 'What's wrong ? What happened ?' She answered : 'The little ones were in the shower playing for such a long time. I went to check on them. They told me they had never been in a shower before. They use a bucket at home. And look the older kids are forming couples. It's like they're normal kids here.'

The teachers, like many social workers around the world, were in a role much more complex, enriching, and taxing, than what their job title suggested. They gave their heart and soul to these children and sometimes it could very hard for them to handle the mental, physical and emotional effort it required. I even remember one time parents bringing their sick daughter to the school because they had nowhere else to go for help.

One Saturday afternoon, I had gone alone to visit the city. I heard my name 'Greg' being yelled out and turned around. It was little Juan and two other Toba children. They rushed towards me and a nearby food vendor yelled at them : 'Leave the man alone!' They said back to him, with pride in their voice : 'He's our teacher.' They were so happy to see me, I was on the edge of tears. I hugged them and bought them food.

At the end of my 6 week stay, I helped walk the kids home. It was my first time visiting the shanty town where they lived. I had seen it from afar, but up close it was even more shocking. It was hard to understand how this was possible in a country with so many ressources.

As we walked through the community, the families of the children would come out and welcome me with open arms and huge smiles, thanking me profusely. The kids must have talked about me to their parents. I was a foreigner, not that much older than the teenagers and I spent quite a lot of time with them.

Tears streaming down my face (even now as I write this and recall those treasured moments), my heart bursting open, I could not believe all the love they were giving me. One teenage girl I had met once briefly gave me an entire notebook of love poems she had written to me. I felt so grateful for these beautiful people.

Now all those years later, I don't know the Toba Indians' current situation, but I suspect they are still struggling like so many other indigenous people around the world. I don't have a solution, but I witnessed how the hard work, dedication and love the teachers demonstrated helped to soften a little bit the harsh reality those children were subject to, letting them know they do matter.

From the official United Nations website :

« Indigenous cultures threatened with extinction. The importance of land and territories to indigenous cultural identity cannot be stressed enough. However, indigenous peoples have continued to experience loss of access to lands, territories and natural resources. The result has been that indigenous cultures today are threatened with extinction in many parts of the world. Due to the fact that they have been excluded from the decision-making and policy frameworks of the nation-states in which they live and have been subjected to processes of domination and discrimination, their cultures have been viewed as being inferior, primitive, irrelevant, something to be eradicated or transformed. »

The school children and I.

It's 2am and the sun is rising over the horizon. We're just South of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Rick has found a prime fishing spot to catch our breakfast.

It's 2010 and I am hitchhiking to the Arctic Ocean, a dream I've had for the past 15 years. The only road that goes there is the infamous and highly dangerous Dalton Highway, featured in the popular TV series 'Ice Road Truckers.' It's 800km to reach the ocean with not one store or gas station along the way.

Rick is my savior. I waited 4 days for a ride at the truck stop outside of Fairbanks. Every night, Rick would come by for his after-work coffee, see me still trying to hitch in vain, and kindly offer to host me for the night.

On the fourth day, he saw me and said: 'Damn man, you still here?! Fuck it, let's go. I've never been there.' Two hours later we were heading North in his truck with jugs of extra gasoline and 2 spares tires (both of which we had to use).

Rick was an outdoorsman, and a tough guy with a big heart. He grew up on a ranch in Texas, and knew how hunt from a young age. In Alaska, he'd lived for two years in a remote indigenous village where they taught him how to survive in the unforgiving Alaskan Winter. He never left his cabin without his bear rifle, which he only used for protection. You can run into grizzly bears, wolves and moose, the most friendly-looking, yet deadly of them all.

On the ride up, Rick talked nonstop, as most lonesome souls do when they find a willing listener. It was all so fascinating. He explained in detail things like how to make a shelter, build a fire, where to place it.

This was the beginning of an epic adventure, and a life-changing journey, born out of the willingness to reach for a dream while facing my biggest fears, and stepping out into the great unknown. I can only describe it as one endless miracle.

This is Don, 79 years young, and his amazing, endearing girlfriend, Bobby. They've been together for 6 passionate months. Both their spouses passed away years before.

Don is quite the catch. He's one of those characters that I'll never forget. He's got these bright, twinkly eyes, and a grin from ear to ear. He fascinates me.

He's a true mountain man, a wilderness purist. He knits his own wool sweaters, and can make a fire with flint, He doesn't use tents, or tarps. He's one of those guys who can survive in the wild with just his wits and experience, much like Alaska Rick.

"Without a tent, you can feel Nature around you," he tells me. "You can see the stars at night. You can see what's coming. You're more part of your surroundings."

Don is so full of life, I can't help but fall in love with him. He's a living testament that you are only as old as you think you are.

"You see that rock up there on the mountain? I stood up there," he says, quite proud. "Ain't too many people can say that. Yeah built myself a cabin way up in those mountains. Hauled all the wood up myself. Took 7 trips... Killed an elk once and lugged it out on my back, all 135 pounds, through 18 inches deep snow. Yeah I was a tough one back then."

You still are.

Don is as strong as a 40 year old. That's what a lifetime spent in the mountains will do. He is a trail maintenance crew chief in Olympic National Park. His volunteers call him Grey Wolf. That's how he met Bobby, his girlfriend. She was on his trail crew. How could she resist?

Don, I love you, wherever you are. I'm so grateful to have met you and shared some crazy stories around the fire. I saw you were tempted to come hitchhiking with me. What a pair we would have made!

You inspire me so much. It's part of why I take such good care of my body and mind. You are a living testament that life doesn't have to get any more boring, or lonely when we get older if we stoke the fire of our spirit with play, work, love and fresh air.

Yes I want to be like you when I grow up, a child at heart, but a tough one indeed.